How Education is Leading the Renewable Energy Race

A Closer Look at Germany

More than 180 of Germany’s universities and technical schools were on the receiving end of a whopping $2.65 billion in federal grant funding for sustainability between 2011 and 2013. The country is now home to several hundred degrees in the area of sustainability, the vast majority of which have popped up in the latter half of the last decade alone. Sustainability is now so entrenched in the country’s culture, says one German professor, that it is considered a di rigueur part of the curriculum.

handsome african construction engineer with blue print

handsome african construction engineer with blue print

Just as STEM takes an interdisciplinary approach to technology, so is Germany embracing an interdisciplinary perspective on sustainability? Rather than viewing renewable energy solutions within the narrow framework of a single discipline, they are seen as interconnected parts of a functional whole. And while some participant s recollect initial “turf wars,” and learning curves related to overcoming departmentalization, the results have largely been successful. The spirit of collaborative extends beyond coursework: the German government is also actively encouraging partnerships between the academic and private sectors.

Germany’s approach echoes themes proposed two winters ago at the World Future Energy Summit (WFES). This gathering of leaders from government, non-profit, business, and academic sectors convened in the United Arab Emirates to discuss renewable energy. One clear takeaway? Higher education and research will drive the transition to a low-carbon planet and achievement of global renewable energy goals.

But not just any education and research programs will do. Rather, only a broad-based curriculum capable of encompassing the reality that a range of technologies — as opposed to one single method — can aspire toward meeting the world’s energy needs.

What It Means for the Rest of Us

Many of the participants in Germany’s clean-energy work have sought to spread the message beyond the country’s borders by attempting to involve the U.S. in similar efforts, and in fact American campuses are already undergoing greening measures of their own. The difference, according to some observers? While sustainability measures are accepted as a matter of course in Germany, they’re still considered relatively extracurricular in the U.S. In other words, sustainability remains secondary — as opposed to an integral part of curriculum or research.

Some further suggest that this difference can be attributed to disparities in cultural ethoses: while Germany’s political, academic and public sectors are largely aligned regarding climate change and the importance of renewable energy, the U.S. is more divided in both attitudes and priorities. Ultimately, while Germany’s example may serve as impetus for what happens moving forward in the U.S., the path itself may inherently differ.

The U.S. is far from alone in raising its sustainability game. All over the globe, universities are offering a n expanding breadth and depth of coursework and degrees in energy studies. Science, engineering and even law students can pursue specialized studies in everything from solar energy to nuclear energy to sustainability in general. This dynamic field not only delivers knowledge and skills prized in today’s job market, but also offers students the ability to join in and make a difference. To learn more about Energy Studies offerings focused on meeting the world’s rising demand for alternate energy sources, click here and here.

Creating Sustainability Leaders

As universities evolve to meet global sustainability directives, students looking for an immediate immersive experience may find what they’re looking for in programs like the Green Team. Designed to bridge the gap between classroom learning and real life innovation, the program has served thousands of students from more than 57 countries in partnership with the Institute of International Education’s Generation Study Abroad Initiative. And while the Green Team’s short-term programs offer undergraduate and graduate students the chance to clean global industry insights and return home as change-making, green-conscious leaders within their own communities, the organization is also working directly with leading universities to deploy its GREEN educational models within the existing higher education curricula.

A specialized agency of the United Nations, UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) has also identified renewable and alternative energies as a strategic priority. With a focus on capacity building, information exchange, policy development, technical assistance, and best practices, UNESCO’s programs work proactively toward the goal of a more sustainable common future.

One recurring theme as the discussion surrounding renewable energy continues? The belief that no single solution for the energy crisis exists. Rather, progress will rely on a collective of separate-yet-related methods with applications across the full spectrum of global contexts. Education and research will play an integral role in producing the leaders who will engineer and implement these technologies.

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